I am now ready to end this thread of posts dealing with the stories of Jesus’ virgin birth – told differently in Matthew and Luke, not at all in John, and seemingly argued against in the Gospel of Mark.
Earlier I should have given some terminology so that we could all be on the sam page. There are different terms that are often confused:
- Immaculate Conception. This doctrine is *not* about Jesus’ mother conceiving as a virgin; it is about Mary’s *own* mother and how she conceived Mary. Mary, in Roman Catholic thinking, did not have a sin nature. Otherwise she would have passed it along to Jesus. But how could Mary not have one, if she were born and raised like every other human? The answer came in the medieval notion of the immaculate conception: Mary herself was conceived (by her mother Anna) miraculously: God did a miracle so that even though Mary was conceived through the sex act, she was not given a sin nature.
- Virginal conception. This is actually the view of Matthew and Luke, that Jesus’ mother *conceived* without having sex. It is actually not the same thing as the term “virgin birth” (which I have been using loosely to mean virginal conception)
- Virgin birth. Technically speaking, this refers to Mary giving *birth* while still a virgin. In other words, she not only conceived without sex, but her hymen remained intact even after giving birth. This was the later view of church fathers.
- Perpectual virginity of Mary. This was the view that Mary *never* had sex, to the end of her life. This became the standard view in Roman Catholic circles. Mary was without a sin nature (hence the immaculate conception), and never was involved in sin in any way, including passing on a sin nature to others by giving them birth (the sin nature is given a child at conception during the sex act).
But if Mary was a perpetual virgin, then why is Jesus said to have brothers and sisters in the New Testament (see Mark 6:3; John 7:3)? This was the ONE issue that my students at Rutgers – who were largely Roman Catholic – had problems with when I taught NT there. Unlike my evangelical protestant students at UNC, who have no problem with Jesus’ mother having other children, but who can’t *stand* (many of them) the idea that the Bible could have mistakes in it, my Rutgers students would often go ballistic if I claimed that Jesus had siblings.
Here is what I say about the Catholic view of Jesus’ “brothers” in my book Did Jesus Exist?
As a side note I should point out that the Roman Catholic Church has for many centuries insisted that Jesus did not actually have brothers. That does not mean that the church denied that James and the other brothers of Jesus existed, or that they were unusually closely related to Jesus. But in the Roman Catholic view Jesus’ brothers were not related to Jesus by blood, because they were not the children of his mother Mary. The reasons the Catholic Church put forth for claiming this, however, were not historical or based on a close examination of the New Testament texts. Instead, the reasoning involved a peculiar doctrine that had developed in the Catholic church, dating all the way back to the fourth Christian century. In traditional catholic dogma, Mary, the mother of Jesus, was not simply a virgin when Jesus was born, but she remained a virgin until the end of her days. This is the doctrine of the perpetual virginity of Mary.
In no small measure this doctrine is rooted in the view that sexual relations necessarily involve sinful activities. Mary, however, according to Catholic doctrine, did not have a sin nature. She could not have had, otherwise she would have passed it along to Jesus when he was born. She was herself conceived without the stain of original sin: the doctrine of the “immaculate conception.” And since she did not have a sin nature, she was not involved in any sinful activities, including sex. That is why, at the end of her life, rather than dying, Mary was taken up into heaven. This is the doctrine of the assumption of the virgin.
Protestants have long claimed that none of these doctrines about Mary is actually rooted in Scripture, and from a historians’ point of view, I have to say that I think they are right. These are theological views driven by theological concerns that have nothing to do with the earliest traditions about Jesus and his family. But if, for Roman Catholics, Mary was a perpetual virgin, and never had sex, who exactly were the so-called “brothers” of Jesus?
There were two views of the matter that Catholic thinkers developed, one of which became standard. In the older of the two views, the “brothers” of Jesus were the sons of Joseph from a previous marriage. This made them, in effect, Jesus’ step-brothers. This view can be found in later apocryphal stories about Jesus’ birth, where we are told that Joseph was a very old man when he became betrothed to Mary. Presumably that is one of the reasons they never had sex; Joseph was too old. This perspective continued to exert its influence on Catholic thinkers for centuries. You may have noticed that in all those medieval paintings of Jesus’ nativity, Joseph is portrayed as quite elderly, as opposed to Mary, in the blossom of youth. This is why. I should stress that even if this view were historically right – there is not single piece of reliable evidence for it – James still would have been unusually closely related to Jesus.
Eventually this view came to be displaced however, and in no small measure because of the powerful influence of the fourth-century church father Jerome. Jerome was an ascetic himself, among other things, denying himself the pleasures of sex. He thought that the superior form of Christian life for everyone involved asceticism. But surely he was no more ascetic than the close relatives of Jesus. For Jerome, this means that not only Jesus’ mother but also his father (who was not really his father, except by adoption) were ascetics as well. Even Joseph never had sex. But that obviously means he could not have children from a previous marriage, and so the brothers of Jesus were not related to Joseph. They were Jesus’ cousins.
The main problem with this view is that when the New Testament talks about Jesus’ brothers, it uses the Greek word that literally refers to a male sibling. There is a different Greek word for cousin. This other word is not used of James and the others. A plain and straightforward reading of the texts in the Gospels and in Paul leads to an unambiguous result: these “brothers” of Jesus were his actual siblings. Since neither Mark (which first mentions Jesus having four brothers and several sisters; 6:3) nor Paul gives any indication at all of knowing anything about Jesus being born of a virgin, the most natural assumption is that they both thought that Jesus’ parents were his real parents. They had sexual relations, and Jesus was born. And then (later?) came other children to the happy couple. And so Jesus’ brothers were his actual brothers.